Why Do So Many Traffic Stops Go Wrong?

A Times investigation showed that hundreds of unarmed drivers and passengers died at the hands of the police in recent years.

Monday, November 1st, 2021

Sabrina Tavernise

From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. This is The Daily.

[Music]

Today: A Times investigation shows that police killed 400 unarmed drivers or passengers during traffic stops over the last five years. I spoke to my colleague, David Kirkpatrick, about why so many traffic stops go wrong and why the problem is so hard to fix.

It’s Monday, November 1.

David, where did you start this investigation?

David Kirkpatrick

Well, it started right after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who had pulled George Floyd out of the driver’s seat of a car and then killed him on the sidewalk. There had been a number of other instances of unarmed drivers, mostly African-Americans, killed by police at vehicle stops, including Daunte Wright in Minnesota. There was an army lieutenant, Caron Nazario, who was pulled over and pepper sprayed in Virginia. So we wanted to know, is this happening as often as it seems, unarmed drivers getting killed at vehicle stops? And if it is happening a lot, why?

Sabrina Tavernise

So what did you do to answer those questions? What did you do first?

David Kirkpatrick

Well, my colleagues in investigation — Steve Eder and Kim Barker and I — began with a list of 5,000 people killed by police over the last five years. We got that from data put together already by the Washington Post and two research organizations mapping police violence and fatal encounters. From there, we collected all the news reports and court records and whenever possible, audio and video recordings of these killings that we could.

And we tried to isolate the people who were killed at vehicle stops, the people who were unarmed, not carrying a gun or a knife, not threatening the police with a weapon. And also, we tossed out everybody who was being pursued for a violent crime, so no bank robbers, no murderers on the run. We wanted to isolate just the killings at vehicle stops that seemed the most questionable, the most potentially avoidable. And what we got was about 400 drivers or passengers over that five-year period who were killed at vehicle stops. That’s about six a month or more than one a week.

Sabrina Tavernise

Six a month, that sounds like a lot.

David Kirkpatrick

Yeah, and as in other killings by American police, African-Americans were disproportionately overrepresented. In many cases when we talk to the families of the drivers who had been killed, they said, I don’t think my relative would have been pulled over if he or she wasn’t Black. Now, if you look at all of the 400 unarmed drivers we identified, in many cases, they were drunk or under the influence of drugs, or they had drugs in the car. Or for one reason or another, they tried to flee. But that said, none of that means they deserved to be killed by the side of the road.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right, and what did you find out about why these traffic stops become so violent?

David Kirkpatrick

Well, the first part of the answer comes pretty quickly. Well, we started talking to police officers or former police officers, and the first thing they’d say is, well, people get killed at traffic stops because we’re told that traffic stops are very dangerous to us. And we began looking into that. We collected training manuals. We interviewed trainers.

And we found out as much as we could about the process of teaching cops how to do vehicle stops. And what we learned is that they’re often told that more officers are killed stopping vehicles than in any other context. So that’s the most common way for an officer to be killed. In the most aggressive training manuals, they say point blank, every driver could be a killer. Watch out.

Sabrina Tavernise

Wow, so it’s really drummed into them from the very beginning of their life as a police officer.

David Kirkpatrick

That’s exactly right. Throughout their training and then, repeatedly, through their career at roll call briefings before they go on duty, they’re shown videos that show easygoing, tolerant cops getting mowed down by drivers who whip out guns out of nowhere. There’s one especially iconic video.

Archived Recording (

Driver, step back here to me. Come on back here for me.

David Kirkpatrick

An officer named Kyle Dinkheller, who pulled over a pickup truck in Georgia in the 1990s.

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Keep your hands out of your pocket, sir. Sir.

Archived Recording (Driver)

Fuck you. Goddamn it. Here I am. Shoot my fucking ass.

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Come here.

Archived Recording (Driver)

Here I am, here I am!

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Sir, come here.

David Kirkpatrick

The driver jumps out. And he’s jumping around like a mad man. He’s dancing.

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Come here. Sir, get back.

Archived Recording (Driver)

What are you [INAUDIBLE]

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Sir, get back. Now, get back. Get back. Sir, get back, now.

Archived Recording (Driver)

No.

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Get back.

Archived Recording (Driver)

[EXPLETIVE] you.

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Sir, get back.

David Kirkpatrick

And he’s not obeying any of the police officer’s orders.

Archived Recording

[INAUDIBLE]

David Kirkpatrick

And after a while —

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

[INAUDIBLE] Get back here now. Put the gun down.

David Kirkpatrick

The driver pulls out a semi-automatic weapon.

Archived Recording (Kyle Dinkheller)

Drop the gun now.

David Kirkpatrick

And he guns down the officer right there. And it’s captured on the officer’s own dashcam.

[Music]

So Kyle Dinkheller has really become a martyr, and seemingly every officer I talked to knows who he is. And his name stands for the ever present danger to police whenever they’re pulling over a vehicle. That sense of peril has become so ingrained that when officers are walking over to the driver’s side window, when they’re pulling over a car, they’ll often put four fingers on the trunk. The reason they’re trained to do that is to leave fingerprints.

That way, if the officer is ambushed and killed by the driver, detectives, when they find the car, will know who did it. It’s almost like a kind of tactile reminder of just how dangerous pulling over a car is for a cop.

Sabrina Tavernise

OK. So what I’m hearing you say is that vehicle stops are really dangerous for police officers. I mean, this is what this is all laying out for me.

David Kirkpatrick

Well, what the police are told in their training isn’t really the full picture. Over the five-year period we looked at, 20 percent of all those officers killed in crimes while on duty were killed by motorists they had pulled over. So, in a sense, that is a lot. But at the same time, it’s misleading.

It’s misleading because traffic stops are the most common way police interact with civilians. They perform tens of millions of them every year.

Sabrina Tavernise

Wow.

David Kirkpatrick

And when you look at the sheer number of traffic stops, each vehicle stop is really not that dangerous. In fact, there have been more than one study done that shows the chance of an officer getting killed at a vehicle stop is less than one in 3.6 million. If you isolate just the ordinary traffic stops, you know, not chasing a felon, it’s less than one in 6 million.

Sabrina Tavernise

Oh, wow. That’s very small.

David Kirkpatrick

Yeah, so that really is a relatively small chance. I called some statisticians who study this kind of thing, and they said someone is more likely to die going for a horse ride or taking a swim.

Sabrina Tavernise

So even though officers are taught that traffic stops are incredibly dangerous, that’s not actually true.

David Kirkpatrick

That’s right. It’s misleading. And that assumption has consequences. What we see is that officers are trained to think that because it’s so dangerous, they need to have total control.

Archived Recording (Officer)

All right. Stay away. You’re distracting me. You’re going to go to jail if you interfere, all right.

Archived Recording (Speaker)

I ain’t interfering.

Archived ^Archived Recording (Officer)

^: You are interfering, because —

David Kirkpatrick

And that leads them sometimes to treat mere disobedience as a mortal threat, to retaliate against back talk or evasion —

Archived Recording

Hey, man, hands, hands, hands [EXPLETIVE].

David Kirkpatrick

— or a lack of compliance.

Archived Recording

You move I’m going to shoot your [EXPLETIVE], man. You move I’m going to [EXPLETIVE] blow your head off.

Easy.

David Kirkpatrick

Sometimes with threats of deadly force.

Archived Recording

Can I see your license please?

David Kirkpatrick

Or even occasionally deadly force.

Archived Recording

Get out of the car. Get out of the car.

[GUN SHOTS]

David Kirkpatrick

And also it has another consequence. So on the one hand, because of this fear, you see a very understandable kind of aggression on the part of the officers. But then, after the fact, you also find that prosecutors and courts grant extra leeway for the use of force to police who are performing traffic stops because of the perceived danger.

Sabrina Tavernise

So what does that look like?

David Kirkpatrick

Well, we should be clear. A police officer is only allowed to use deadly force if the police officer reasonably fears an imminent threat to the police officer’s life or someone else’s life. They’re not allowed to use deadly force just to punish disobedience. But when you take into account the reputation for danger at these vehicle stops, prosecutors, judges and juries are often inclined to accept that the police officer really did fear for his or her life, even when, in fact, the actual danger is very debatable.

[Music]

In our list of 400 deaths of unarmed drivers, we found dozens of cases where officers shot motorists just because the motorists were reaching for something or holding an object that turned out not to be a gun. That includes, in one case, holding a bottle of antifreeze, in another case a bag of sandwiches, many times, of course, just cell phones. So it’s very easy for a judge or jury to accept that the driver was reaching for something, and the officer credibly believed it could have been a gun.

Or perhaps the driver was revving his engine, and the officer credibly believed that even if the driver was probably trying to escape, he could also run down the officer. So when a vehicle is involved, given this reputation for danger, it’s very easy for the officer to say to a prosecutor or a judge or a jury, look, I really did fear for my life.

Courts often assess the use of deadly force based only on the final moment when an officer pulls the trigger.

But we looked at more than 120 videos of those killings. And we found that if you roll back the video and look at the larger context, often the story is much more complicated.

Sabrina Tavernise

We’ll be right back.

So, David, you said that what actually happens during these traffic stops is more complicated than what the public ends up seeing. How so? What did your reporting show?

David Kirkpatrick

Well, our colleagues in The New York Times visual investigations team isolated 120 of these videos of killings at vehicle stops. They picked out the videos where you could really see clearly what was happening at the moment of the actual shooting. And what they found was that in 45 of these 120 cases, the officer had actually put him or herself at risk, what criminologists call officer-created jeopardy.

That means the police officer had stepped in front of a moving vehicle or reached into the door or the window of a vehicle. And the officer had put his own life in jeopardy and then cited that jeopardy as a reason for killing the driver. What’s happening here is the officer takes a moment of disobedience and turns it into a life or death encounter. It’s going to be you, or it’s going to be me. The officer says, all right, you’re not listening to me and trying to flee. Well, I’m going to make that a choice between your life and my life.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right. So the driver isn’t exactly following orders. But the officer makes it into a life or death encounter.

David Kirkpatrick

Right.

So one of the videos we looked at is the killing of a driver named Coltin LeBlanc. Coltin LeBlanc is driving his pickup truck. He’s driving erratically. A Louisiana state trooper pulls him over.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Sir, step out for me please.

Archived Recording (Coltin Leblanc)

Yes, sir.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Step over here —

David Kirkpatrick

LeBlanc gets out of the car.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Louisiana State Police, the reason I pulled you over is because you didn’t use a turn signal.

David Kirkpatrick

And he has a conversation with the trooper. The trooper starts out fairly polite.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Do you have your driver’s license?

David Kirkpatrick

Asks for his license.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Do you have your driver’s license on your, sir?

Archived Recording (Coltin Leblanc)

It’s in my car.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Let’s go get it please.

David Kirkpatrick

LeBlanc heads back to his car to get the license. And that’s when things start to go wrong.

Archived Recording

I can’t see it.

David Kirkpatrick

You can see in the video LeBlanc is putting his foot on the brake. He’s reaching for the ignition.

Archived Recording

[CAR ENGINE]

A second later, LeBlanc puts the car in gear. LeBlanc, at this point, is only suspected of possibly being a drunk driver. Tactically, trainers would tell you the right thing for the officer to do is to let him drive away. You’ve got his license plate number. You could follow him. Instead, this Louisiana State trooper grabs the open door. He hangs himself over the open door with his left hand as LeBlanc is beginning to drive away.

[TIRES SQUEALING]

And he shouts to LeBlanc, stop, stop, stop the car. But LeBlanc is not stopping the car. And at that point, the trooper has hung himself off the open door of a moving pickup truck. And his life really is in jeopardy.

[GUN SHOTS]

David Kirkpatrick

He pulls out his gun with his right hand. And he shoots LeBlanc three times in the torso the arm, and the ear.

Archived Recording (State Trooper)

Get on the ground right now. Get on the ground right now. Get on the ground.

David Kirkpatrick

LeBlanc died in the hospital.

[Music]

Sabrina Tavernise

So you’re saying that when you look at the shooting itself, you’re only really getting half the picture. Because when you rewind the film and you look at the whole thing, you understand that it’s not always as simple as the officer was afraid for his life.

David Kirkpatrick

That’s right. Advocates for the police would say, look, this driver was disobedient and actually threatened the police officer, which is true. But, at the same time, choices by that officer turned what might have been an innocuous or routine encounter into a life or death challenge that ended in the driver dying.

Sabrina Tavernise

Right. That this disobedience becomes a potentially lethal thing.

David Kirkpatrick

That’s right. Disobedience becomes a capital crime.

Sabrina Tavernise

So, David, as you describe all of this to me, there’s one thing I’m kind of getting stuck on, which is, if police officers are trained that stops are so dangerous and often put themselves in unnecessary risk when they do them, then why not do fewer of them? I mean, you said that they do tens of millions of stops a year.

David Kirkpatrick

Well, a part of the answer is money. Two of my other colleagues in investigations, Mike McIntire and Michael Keller, were really intrigued about the incident where police in Virginia had pulled over Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario. They’d pulled him over and pepper sprayed him and threatened him. And my colleagues found, that same week, the town council was questioning the police chief about why ticket revenue was declining.

Sabrina Tavernise

Wow.

David Kirkpatrick

And they began to wonder, how important was ticket revenue for this town and other towns like it? And what they found was really surprising. More than 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10 percent of their revenue. In one town in Louisiana, that was more than 85 percent of its revenue. They found a bunch of small towns out there that issue more tickets each year than they have residents.

Sabrina Tavernise

That’s crazy.

David Kirkpatrick

Yeah. And in many of these places, the money they bring in for tickets is going to their own training, to the police benevolent fund or to other benefits. And what’s more, they found that the federal government has a role in this. The federal government gives out $600 million a year to municipalities for traffic enforcement. And to get that money, states have to present plans for their traffic enforcement.

And in at least 20 of those states, they explicitly evaluate police on the number of traffic stops they make. In some towns, cops are told outright, you have to make this many stops per hour.

Sabrina Tavernise

So they’re directly financially incentivized to be making a lot of traffic stops.

David Kirkpatrick

Yeah, they are. And some of these towns that rely disproportionately on ticket revenue were also disproportionately stopping Black drivers. For example, in the town of Newburgh Heights, that’s about a half-square mile town with 2,000 residents just south of Cleveland, tickets account for more than half of their town revenue. 22 percent of the town’s residents are Black. And yet, Black people make up 76 percent of their license and insurance violations and 63 percent of speeding cases driving through the town.

Sabrina Tavernise

Wow.

David Kirkpatrick

So, basically, this is a primarily white town right outside of Cleveland. They send a lot of troopers out to the highway. And they catch a disproportionate number of Black drivers on their way down the highway getting out of town. When my colleagues asked about the disproportionate number of Black drivers they were pulling over on the road out of Cleveland, the mayor said, we don’t really control who drives through our community.

We also talked to a former police officer and criminologist who’s African-American. And he said he thought that traffic stops were a kind of special problem for racial bias. As he put it, police think traffic stops are dangerous. Police think Black people are dangerous. And the combination is volatile.

Sabrina Tavernise

And add to that what you just said, which is that officers are incentivized to run up the numbers, stop a lot of cars to get money from fines.

David Kirkpatrick

Yeah. Now, advocates for the police would say, look, traffic stops are important, because it gets dangerous drivers off the road. And the risks to police are real. So courts and the public need to make special allowances for the fact that those police have to make tough, split-second, life-or-death decisions under pressure. And other people, including judges and juries, shouldn’t be second guessing those choices.

Critics of the police would say, if there were more accountability, if more agencies and officers were punished in some way or held liable for the avoidable killing of drivers, then they would have an incentive to cut it out. I’ll tell you what we found. When we looked through these cases, we found that of the 400 unarmed drivers killed by police at vehicle stops that we had identified, in those cases, only about 30 officers were charged with a crime.

And in those roughly 30 cases, only five police officers have been convicted of any crime. One of them was given probation and no jail time. And another one of those five was Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. In the vast majority of the cases that we looked at, the officers who had killed these unarmed drivers suffered no penalty or consequences. In many cases, the officers were praised for their conduct.

One case that stood out for us was the case of Deputy Jason Hanratty. In January of 2019, he joined a chase, along with several other deputies, of a GMC Yukon that had initially been pulled over for a broken taillight. The GMC Yukon led them on a wild chase across the county. Finally, one of the deputies forced it to spin out on a lawn. And at that point, Deputy Hanratty got out of his own police vehicle to try to approach the SUV.

It lurched forward again. And the video of that encounter shows that he reached out his left arm. He put it on the hood and pushed off. And at that point, he’s arguably safe. The GMC is moving by him. But he pulled out his sidearm with his right hand. And he fired several shots into the driver’s side window, injuring the driver, a 20-year-old pregnant woman, and passing through her to kill her passenger.

Now, that’s an avoidable death. And yet, a few months later, the sheriff promoted Deputy Hanratty to sergeant. The next year, the Sheriff awarded him a medal of valor. And in the ceremony, his actions were praised as truly heroic.

Sabrina Tavernise

David, thank you.

David Kirkpatrick

Thank you.

Sabrina Tavernise

We’ll be right back.

[Music]

Here’s what else you need to know today. On Sunday, leaders of the group of 20 nations, including the U.S., the European Union and China, sent a symbolic message on efforts to control climate change. Meeting in Rome, the leaders pledged to work to restrict the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The number is seen as a critical threshold for limiting the most severe effects of climate change. And —

Archived Recording (Joe Biden)

The United States and the European Union have reached a major breakthrough that will address the existential threat of climate change while also protecting American jobs and American industry.

Sabrina Tavernise

President Biden struck a deal to roll back tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports, resolving a bitter trade dispute with the E.U. which began under President Trump three years ago. In return, the E.U. will drop its retaliatory tariffs on American goods, like orange juice, bourbon and motorcycles.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to the Layout

Top Posts

Police2Peace

Is a non profit that provides police agencies of all kinds with alternative to the ways they deliver public safety, while helping communities reimagine how they would like policing to be.

More Articles

Get Involved

Send us a message or give us a call.  We will respond within 24 hours with the tools you need to get started.

Police2Peace is a 501c3 not for profit corporation.  All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent provided by law.

Follow Us

Copyright © 2022 Police2Peace All Rights Reserved

Police2Peace is a registered mark of Police2Peace.  Peace Officer Project,  Peace Officer Promise and Peace Officer Framework are trademarks of Police2Peace.